Thinking Sensibly about Recycling and the Environment

Publication, Environment, David Seymour


Executive Summary
Environmental concern is a powerful political motivator that influences public policy, and recycling is often presented as a solution to some environmental concerns. It is important, therefore, to use logical processes with quantitative data to evaluate the reality of these concerns and the effectiveness of recycling at addressing them;
• Recycling must be put into perspective with the other two R’s—reducing and reusing. In contrast, these two waste reduction strategies highlight the fact that recycling is actually an industrial process. It may or may not yield a net saving of resources, but it always consumes some resources in the course of saving others;
• Specifically, recycling promises to alleviate the problems of landfill pollution and space occupation, of raw-material extraction that damages the environment, and of resource depletion that can lower future living standards;
• An analysis of the landfill problem finds that over the next 100 years we should expect landfill to occupy less than 1 per cent of 1 percent, or one-ten-thousandth of Canada’s total land area. This assumes current waste production per capita and population both double over that period. Further, the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others, has stated the pollution threat from landfills is negligible. Finally, areas used for landfills are not necessarily “lost” forever; they are often redeveloped as useful land.
• For an example of extraction impacts a forestry case study finds that Canadian forestry is sustainable, forest cover is stable, fires and parasite infestations disturb more forest each year than does harvesting and paper production does not account for the majority of forest harvesting. If all paper recycling ceased, harvesting activity would have to increase by a maximum of one-sixth; yet the potential for more reductions in harvesting from more paper recycling seems minimal.
• The contention that our standard of living is tied to resource depletion is unfounded given the ability of technological innovations to provide the same or better usefulness from fewer or different resources. This does not mean that innovation is a complete solution to resource depletion, but it is a very powerful one. Correspondingly, recycling may be a net reducer of consumption, but it is not a complete solution to resource depletion.
• The decision to recycle more or less material ultimately depends on the values placed on different types of resources, including land for landfills, people’s time, and energy and commodities.
• The best guide to the most valuable combinations of resources, and therefore optimal recycling, is to acknowledge the prices that people put on different goods. If recycling is profitable because the resources it consumes are worth less than the landfill space and new materials it saves, more recycling should be done. If not, less should be done.

Read entire study in PDF (35 pages)